Category Archives: 1-Star Reviews
A very slight biography of former General of the Army and President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Although its purpose is not to provide an in depth look at Grant’s life, this work barely succeeds in its mission of providing a basic overview of its subject. While some sections are more readable than others the overall impression is one of a barely competent college thesis. Among the many flaws in this work the two most notable for me are his use of lazy shortcuts to describe various people, and blindingly obvious inaccuracies about Grant’s political career. He also displays a casual acceptance of gender and racial stereotypes that are inappropriate.
Falsely derided as a butcher and a drunk after the failure of reconstruction, Grant’s reputation has undergone a long overdue rehabilitation in recent years, and to its credit, this book does make an attempt at continuing that trend, at least as it relates to Grant’s military career. Other than that however, with so many better Grant biographies to choose from, I don’t really see any purpose for this book. It really provides little more than you would get from Grant’s Wikipedia entry, with some significant flaws.
There are a number of well worn and tiresome ways in which some historians will try and illuminate their subjects. Sadly, this book seems to make use of most of them, although I was happy to see the author didn’t, despite Grant’s well known attachment to horses, describe him as the “best horseman of his age.” I really hate that one! However he did include pointless and often insulting descriptions of several of the women he includes in his narrative, as well as unwarranted assumptions about the character and mood of people based on a single still life photograph or portrait.
The trend of including long-winded opinions on the relative attractiveness of historical figures (usually female), is one I particularly disdain. Unless it has a tangible and verifiable bearing on that person’s place in history or in how others related to them, I do not see the point. In this case the author goes to great pains to describe Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, in insulting and sexist terms. Curiously I cannot recall a single instance where the author included such extensive descriptions of Grant or other males included in the narrative. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, he also includes a little dollop of racial stereotyping as well! Consider the following:
“Julia was, to put it kindly, “plain,” as even her nearest and dearest in the Dent family were obliged to admit. Indeed, “plain” seems like a generous description of Julia Dent. A photograph of her taken as a young woman…reveals a bumpy nose, a strong chin, and what appears to be a pronounced squint in one eye, or perhaps, as [William] McFeely suggests, strabismus, a weakening of the eye muscles combined with a squint (some people unkindly described her as walleyed), hair pulled back unflatteringly tight, and a compact, dumpy figure. The fashions of the times apparently do nothing to help her, and her expression in the photograph is severe, impatient, and unwelcoming. Although she was to come to think of herself as a Southern belle, as kind of a border state Scarlett O’Hara, Julia was by far the plainest member of the Dent family, and even the colored servants (slaves, of course) seem to have told her so.”
Yes, Mr. Korda, we get it, you think she is ugly…so ugly in fact even “the coloreds” think so. I have to say of the literally hundreds of biographies I have read this has got to be the most insulting passage I have ever seen. I really am at a loss as to why the author thought it was important to include it.
In addition to the above, in several places, the author makes unsupported assumptions about the demeanor, mood and even the character of people based on a single black and white photograph. This is another trend I really despise. I see no evidence that such concrete assertions about a person can be gleaned from a single image in this way. Consider again:
“He [Grant] looks careworn and miserably unhappy, as he surely was, and perhaps [was] in need of a stiff drink”
Now this description was applied to possibly the most famous photograph of Grant. He is at his City Point, Virginia headquarters, leaning rather jauntily against a tree in front of one of his headquarters tents. At this point in the war Grant is at the peak of his power, in complete charge of a war machine unprecedented up to that time in American history. Most observers, if they ascribe any demeanor to him at all, note the confidence in Grant’s face and the pose he chose to be photographed in. There is no evidence that I know of that backs up the author’s description of Grant’s demeanor in this photograph. It’s just a lazy way of psychoanalyzing a person without having to do any corroborating research.
Finally, the author makes some assertions about Grant’s career that are just not correct. In particular he completely misrepresents Grant’s Presidential record on civil rights. He dismisses Grants efforts, asserting that “Grant was unwilling…to use federal force to defend the rights of blacks or to challenge the South’s status quo – Grant had won the Civil War but had no interest in re-fighting it. He preferred to get the army out of there and leave the Southern states to their own devices…” This is simply untrue and betrays a lack of research inexcusable for a biographer. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether Korda was confusing Grant with Andrew Johnson, about whom this passage would be more accurate.
Grant’s efforts on behalf of the freedmen was nearly the opposite of what Korda asserts here. As H.W. Brands, a far more credible Grant biographer has noted, “he [Grant] strove mightily to ensure that African Americans received the civil rights and equal treatment they were supposedly accorded by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He didn’t accomplish all he fought for: the overwhelming weight of public opinion was against him…[but the] Ku Klux Klan was shattered in the South by Grant’s bold and timely action.”
There is no doubt, as Brands asserts, that Grant could not forever buck northern public opinion which, by the end of Grant’s presidency had grown tired of Reconstruction. In 1875 for example, Grant refused to send in additional federal troops to Mississippi to protect blacks against an increase in violent intimidation. As renowned Reconstruction expert Eric Foner has noted however, this action “reflected the broader Northern retreat from Reconstruction and its ideal of racial equality.” Though he doesn’t reference this incident specifically, Korda misleadingly implies actions such as this represent the entirety of Grant’s racial policy. That is simply, and spectacularly, wrong.
Korda’s views of Grant are perhaps shaped by the sources he has chosen to use. He highlights two works as being most helpful: Meet General Grant by W.E. Woodward published in 1928, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Grant, A Biography by William McFeely. It’s interesting, with so much great scholarship on Grant available, that the author chose these works. Meet General Grant, while well written, reflects views on reconstruction and race that are no longer accepted by historians. The author asserts for example, that slavery was actually more harmful to whites than blacks, and that blacks had been civilized by the institution “in a shorter time than any savage race was ever civilized before.” McFeely’s work is of course, better researched, but is conspicuous for the consistently negative view it takes of Grant’s Presidency. That Korda chose these two works as his primary sources goes a long way to explaining his distorted view of Grant’s civil rights record.
The motto emblazoned on Grant’s tomb in New York City says simply “Let Us Have Peace.” In his far superior biography of Grant, author H.W. Brands correctly notes that this reflected not only Grant’s desire for a reunification of the country, but also his desire for the complete application of the war’s main aims, a restoration of the union and the full emancipation of the slaves.
Korda’s work reflects none of this. Given this and the other serious flaws noted above, I cannot recommend this book. There are many better Grant biographies to choose from.
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Possibly the most poorly written book I have ever had the misfortune to read. Why I even bothered to finish it I don’t know. In both style and substance it is woefully deficient.
Written from a conservative perspective this book has become a favorite among the “Washington was a fundamentalist Christian” crowd.
A far better, and more credible Washington treatment from a conservative perspective is Richard Brookhiser’s “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington“
No matter who you are, or what your prejudice is regarding Washington as a conservative icon…SKIP THIS BOOK!!!
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